Is it Shinbun or Shimbun?

Is it Shinbun or Shimbun?

It’s both. And it’s neither.

Beginner students often ask whether “shinbun” or “shimbun” (the word for “newspaper” in Japanese) is correct.

You’ll see both spellings...and books about the Japanese language don’t seem to be able to agree either.

If you look at the two most popular Japanese beginner textbooks, Genki has “shinbun”, whereas Japanese for Busy People has “shimbun” and also “kombanwa”.

But why?

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Calligraphers of Instagram (Part 2) - Mitsuru Nagata

Mitsuru Nagata was born in Kyoto, and works extensively in Spain. His work combines elements of calligraphy with sumi-e (Japanese ink painting) techniques.

He performs at "live-painting" events, where he produces huge calligraphy paintings in front of a live audience.

These large-scale performances are often at festivals:

I love the simplicity of Nagata's work, like this stunning commission, with the traditional thatched roof home in the background:
おかえりなさい (o kaeri nasai) "Welcome home"
(Calligraphy is a good opportunity to get your eyes used to vertical writing, too!)

A post shared by Mitsuru Nagata (@nagatayakyoto) on

If hiragana's not your thing, there's plenty of complex kanji to get your teeth into too.

Like this new year's post, with a pug for the year of the dog (2018):
謹賀新年 (kinga shinnen) "Happy New Year"

I love the movement in these videos, and the combination of precision brushwork and watery ink.

This one's a promo for one of Nagata's live performances in Spain - a beckoning cat saying おいでね! (oide ne!) "Please come!"

Follow Mitsuru Nagata (@nagatayakyoto) on Instagram, or find out more on his website.

Read more in this series: Calligraphers of Instagram (Part 1) - @yogai888emi

Your First Ever Beginner Japanese Class

You've signed up, bought the textbook and are on your way to class. The day is here! It's your first ever Japanese lesson!

So, what are we going to do? What are you going to learn? Can't you just stay home and talk to the dog instead?

Your first class can be exciting, but also a bit daunting.

I've taught lots of first-ever Japanese classes to beginners over the years. Here's what we do.

A brief introduction to the Japanese writing system

Lots of people are really interested in the Japanese writing system, and it's a bit complex. So I usually start with a quick rundown of the three "alphabets".

The main reason I start with alphabets is that it helps you with pronunciation.

Pronouncing words in a new language can be difficult. Especially when those words are as long as:

Hajimemashite. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

"Nice to meet you."
Understanding the sounds of Japanese from the start will help you pronounce words correctly.

Introduce yourself!

Next, we learn to introduce ourselves in Japanese:

  • "Nice to meet you!"

  • "My name is..."

  • "I'm from..."

  • "I'm a teacher / engineer / lawyer, etc."

You'll learn to say your job, of course - not just the generic ones in the textbook. This is important.

By this point, you've learned to introduce yourself politely. And to tell a Japanese-speaking person something about yourself. Awesome.

Time for a break, and a cup of ホットコーヒー (hot coffee) from the reception cafe.

Question time!

Next up, we learn some questions:

  • "What's your name?"

  • "Where are you from?"

  • "What's your job?"

We'll practice them over and over, until they're glued into your brain. 

Depending on how much time we have, we might practice introducing each other:

"This is Agnes. She's from Poland. She's a structural engineer."

With lots and lots of practice, that's probably all we have time for. But look what you've learned in one lesson!

Hopefully, you'll go home with your head full of new phrases, ready to test out on the dog.

(Pictured: graduating Beginner class students, 2016-17)

Why You Should Use Mnemonics - the Quickest and Best Way to Learn Hiragana and Katakana

This week I finally got around to going through the mid-course feedback from my students and drawing up plans to incorporate some of what you asked for into the rest of the course.

Several learners mentioned the importance of learning the kana early on.

Learning to read Japanese can be a daunting task. The Japanese language has three distinct "alphabets" (four if you count romaji!) and learning kanji is a task that takes years.

You can learn the kana (hiragana and katakana) pretty quickly, though, if you use the most efficient way to memorise them - mnemonics.

It's a bit like brute force memorisation, except it's fun...

Hiragana and Katakana are the "building blocks" of the Japanese written language. Students in my beginner class mostly start with the romaji edition of 'Japanese For Busy People', because my priority is to get you speaking from day one, and to spend class time on speaking as much as possible. Reading and writing is mostly set as homework.

But if you want to learn to read Japanese, you definitely need to start by learning hiragana.

But how to remember them?

The best, quickest, most fun method is to associate each character with a picture that it (clearly or vaguely) looks like, ideally also using the sound of the letter.

Hiragana and katakana are pretty simple, so associating each character with a picture is super easy.

Here's hiragana き (ki), which we can imagine is a picture of a KEY. My key is an old-fashioned one. Yours might be modern and spiky. Or it might have wings on it and be flying about getting chased by Harry Potter on a broomstick.

The point is to think of a strong visual image that makes the picture of the key stick in your mind:

Of course, you need to learn to read words and sentences too. So as well as learning each letter, you need to practice writing and reading. This where the mnemonic really sinks in.

Memorisation doesn't help you remember. What helps you remember is active recall.

Let me give you an example.

You're reading a sentence and come across the word きのこ. You're staring at the letter き - "which one was that again?" and struggle a little bit to remember it.

Then you remember - aha! it's the KEY! This is ki.

This process of active recall - pushing a little bit to remember something - is the process that cements the mnemonic in your mind.

Hurrah! You're on the path to reading Japanese.

Fun fact: Toad is a きのこ (kinoko).

For me, one of the great thing about using mnemonics to remember the kana is that when I explain the system to learners, they often tell me that's what they're doing anyway, even if they don't have a name for what they're doing:
"Oh yes, that's how I remember む too - it's a funny cow's face! MOO"

"No, む is a man saying MO-ve!"
I've also found - luckily for me - it doesn't matter seem to matter if the actual picture is rubbish. (You don't even have to draw them, I just did this to help my students out and to share the idea).

What's important is that the picture in your head is super clear.

...and once you finish hiragana, you can do the whole thing again for katakana!

You can find the whole set of hiragana and katakana mnemonics with the hashtag #stepupkana - please check it out and let me know what you think.

I'd love to hear what mnemonics you use to help remember the kana - let me know in the comments or add your story to the instagram posts for that character.

Have a lovely Friday everyone. 素敵な一日を過ごしてください!

Why Does The Japanese Language Have So Many Alphabets?

Why Does Japanese Have So Many "Alphabets"? - Step Up Japanese

My students ask a lot of good questions. And one that sent us off on a bit of a tangent a few weeks ago was:

“How old is Japanese writing?”

That'd make a good blog post, I thought (after we talked about it a bit).

So, let’s take a whistle-stop tour of Japanese history with a very brief introduction to Japanese writing systems!

Until the 1st or 2nd century, Japan had no writing system. Then, sometime before 500AD, kanji - Chinese characters - made its way to Japan from China (probably via Korea).

These characters were originally used for their meaning only - they weren't used to write native Japanese words.

↓ And at that time, Japanese writing looked like this. Look, it looks like Chinese!

But it was inconvenient not being able to write native Japanese words down, and so people began to use kanji to represent the phonetic sounds of Japanese words, not only the meaning. This is called manyougana and is the oldest native Japanese writing system.

For example, in manyougana the word asa (morning) was written 安佐 (that's a kanji for the a sound - 安 - and another for the sa sound - 佐). In modern Japanese we'd use 朝, the kanji that means "morning" for asa.

Problem was, manyougana used multiple kanji for each phonetic sound - over 900 characters for the 90 phonetic sounds in Japanese - so it was inefficient and time-consuming.

Gradually, people began to simplify kanji characters into simpler characters - that's where hiragana and katakana came from.

Katakana means "broken kana" or "fragmented characters". It was developed by monks in the 9th century who were annotating Chinese texts so that Japanese people could read them. So katakana was really an early form of shorthand.

Each katakana character comes from part of a kanji: for example, the top half of 呂 became katakana ロ (ro), the left side of 加 became katakana カ (ka).

↓ Each katakana comes from part of a kanji.

Women in Japan, on the other hand, wrote in cursive script, which was gradually simplified into hiragana. That's why hiragana looks all loopy and squiggly. Like katakana, hiragana characters don't have meaning - they just indicate sound.

↓ How kanji (top) evolved into manyougana (middle in red), and then hiragana (bottom).

Because it was simpler than kanji, hiragana was accessible for women who didn't have the same education level as men. The 11th-century classic The Tale of Genji was written almost entirely in hiragana, because it was written by a female author for a female audience.

What would 12th-century people in Japan think of my students, 800 years later, learning hiragana as they take their first steps into the Japanese language?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

Sarada at the Resutoran...Part 2: The Answers

Remember, some loanwords look and sound a bit like English - but they're not!

Last week I gave you some Japanese loanwords to guess the origins of. Did you guess what languages (not English!) these words come from?

Koohii コーヒー coffee -  Portuguese

Zero ゼロ zero - French

Pompu ポンプ pump - Dutch; Flemish

Botan ボタン button - Portuguese

Koppu コップ cup - Dutch; Flemish

Sarada サラダ salad - Portuguese

Kokku コック cook - Dutch; Flemish 
There have actually been Dutch and Portuguese loanwords in Japanese since the 16th and 17th centuries, when both countries established trade with Japan.

So, next time you see a katakana word you don't recognise, don't despair - it might not have originated from a language you speak! ;-)

Getting a Sarada at the Resutoran: Japanese Loanwords From Other Languages

You probably know that katakana is used for loan words. But the *interesting* thing is that not all of these loan words come from English.

So if you’ve been wondering what happened to the “t” sound at the end of the Japanese word resutoran レストラン (restaurant), it was never there in the first place - because that loanword didn’t come from English. It came from French.

And why is the word for salad, sarada サラダ? Wouldn’t sarado サラド make more sense? Well, it would in English... but sarada comes from the Portuguese.

It’s good to know which loanwords didn’t come from English - and it's interesting to know what languages they come from - so you can remember how to pronounce them correctly.

Hopefully this will help you remember that it’s resutoran not resutoranto!


Quiz time!

How many of these Japanese loanwords do you know?

Rentogen  レントケン

Piero ピエロ

Arubaito  アルバイト

Piiman  ピーマン

Ruu  ルー

Esute  エステ

Ikura  イクラ

Noruma  ノルマ

Karuta  カルタ

Sukoppu  スコップ

Igirisu  イギリス

⇩ HINT: Japan believes in calling a スコップ a スコップ

The Answers

Rentogen  レントケン  X-ray  (from German)

Piero  ピエロ  clown  (French)

Arubaito  アルバイト  part time job  (German)

Piiman  ピーマン  peppers [the vegetable]  (French)

Run  ルー  roux sauce [or, more commonly, Japanese curry powder]  (French)

Esute   エステ  aesthetic salon i.e. beauty salon  (French)

Ikura  イクラ  salmon roe  (Russian)

Noruma  ノルマ  quota  (Russian)

Karuta  カルタ  Japanese playing cards  (Portuguese)

Sukoppu  スコップ  spade (Dutch; Flemish)

Igirisu  イギリス  the U.K. (Portuguese)

Pan  パン  bread  (Portuguese)
How did you do?

Don’t be fooled

Some loanwords look and sound a bit like English - but they're not!

Can you guess what languages these loanwords come from? (Hint: not English!)

Koohii コーヒー coffee

Zero ゼロ zero

Pompu ポンプ pump

Botan ボタン button

Koppu コップ cup

Sarada サラダ salad

Kokku コック cook
I'll post the answers next week!